Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Festina lente, or Hurry up and Finish already!

I promised to share some of the things I learned while completing what I hope will be the final revision of my manuscript before it goes out on submission to publishers. Although I'd heard many of these things before from other writers, it wasn't until I experienced them for myself that I realized how true they were. Here is what the intense, exhilarating and oftentimes harrowing experience of revising a four hundred page novel taught me:

1) It can always be better.

Never be satisfied -- that's my new motto. Passages that in the past I'd thought polished and perfected revealed flaws when viewed through the filters of time and distance. Sure, a manuscript can be good, even quite good, but would a little more effort make it really sparkle? Eventually, you reach the point where you have to stop revising either due to time constraints or the need to preserve your sanity, but until then, every word, every sentence should be subjected to careful and considered review.

2) Less really is more.

Cut, cut, cut. Words. Scenes. Characters. Extraneous dialogue. I was amazed at how much I managed to shave off a manuscript I'd already edited several times. Whittling away at the excess verbiage not only makes the words that remain shine like polished gems, but frees up space for deepening character and motivation and fine-tuning the plot. Scenes become all the more powerful when every word, every image, pulls its weight and contributes to the overall effect. 

3) Don't avoid the difficult scenes.

When my agent read an unfinished version of the manuscript last summer along with an outline of the chapters still to be written, she said, "You are going to include a scene where Characters X and Y confront each other and the balance of power shifts, right?" It wasn't a question. I knew such a scene was necessary but I'd left it out, hoping to write around it because it was going to be, well, so hard to write. Frankly, it scared the bejeebers out of me. At the time, I still lacked the plot element upon which the shift depended; moreover, I feared my writing skills weren't adequate to the task. But I couldn't deny it: having such a vital confrontation occur off-stage robbed the conclusion of emotional heft and eviscerated Character X's moral victory. Taking my agent's advice, I forced myself to write the scene. It definitely was hard going, but transformed the last quarter of the book. I can't imagine the ending having the impact it now does without it.

During this final rewrite, I realized that a similar show-down between two different characters, a show-down I had again purposely avoided writing, was necessary to explain and justify one of the character's later actions. Having learned that it is possible to ignore those niggling voices of inadequacy and plunge headfirst into a heated emotional conflict one would run screaming from in real life, I wrote the scene. It's now one of my favorites and adds a healthy bit of emotional complexity to the dénouement.

Moral of the story: don't take the easy way out. Stretch yourself, technically and emotionally, by writing those scenes that challenge you in the deepest ways possible. Both your manuscript and you as a writer will be all the better for it.

4) Trust your gut and give rein to your subconscious.

If your instincts tell you that a scene doesn't work, or a character's actions fail to convince, or the plot has sprung more leaks than a colander, listen. Better to wrestle with such issues in early drafts than to ignore them and have to contort or rewrite large chunks of the story later in order to correct the flaws. But as you work to rectify the problem, don't force things; allow your subconscious mind time to assess the true nature of the problem and sort through possible solutions. Given the number of times I've abandoned a scene in despair, only to come back to it later with the perfect solution in hand, I'm convinced that my mind continues to work on the problem when I'm not consciously thinking about it. In fact, I often come up with stronger, more creative ideas when I'm not actively trying to produce them. It's your story--trust your mind and heart to find the most effective way to tell it.

5) Keep the momentum going, but don't rush.

You need to have the story fresh in your mind to make proper connections between chapters and to layer in additional emotional or thematic depth; working in fits and starts makes such shading and fine-tuning all the more difficult. I found it a great help to reread the entire manuscript start to finish before I began revising in order to have the shape of it fresh in my mind. Once I started to revise, I did as much as possible every day and tried not to let more than a day go by without working.

However, revising a large project like this has a rhythm of its own that must be respected. At the beginning, excited and eager, I moved along at a steady clip. Things slowed down towards the middle, and at times I thought I would never finish. Once over the hump, I began to get antsy and just wanted to be done. Knowing that I might get less discerning the closer I got to the end, I decided to edit the last quarter of the book out of sequence. I jumped ahead to revise the last section before returning to polish the third. This way, I wasn't tempted to let things slide in the all-important concluding chapters in a rush to finish. I am so thankful I chose this path and credit to it the energy I still had to recast and rewrite the ending of the novel.

When I was a child, I embroidered a picture of a tortoise surrounded by the motto "Slow but steady wins the race." Little did I know that forty years later this would become my writing mantra. If publication is the prize, I still haven't won it, but I'm getting all the closer, one step/page/manuscript at a time.


Heather Webb said...

Great post, Julianne. These are definitely words of wisdom to live by and I, for one, can't wait to read the full finished product!

Julianne Douglas said...

Aww, thanks, Heather! I hope you get your wish. :)